Volunteers nurture bluebirds

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER  , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2014 - 9:16 PM

Anoka County bluebird coordinator Jeanne Wilkinson maintains 39 bluebird houses in Anoka parks, golf courses and even in the cemeteries. Here, she checked on a nesting box with eggs in Oakwood Cemetery, where these eggs were a few days old.

Photo: Photos by RICHARD SENNOTT • Star Tribune,

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Threatened by competition from other tree cavity-dwelling birds and a loss of habitat, the songbird known as the harbinger of happiness was going through a decidedly somber period.

The Bluebird Recovery group, a committee of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, built and hung birdhouses and in its first year reported 22 fledglings that flew the nest.

Thirty-three years later, in 2012, the group of volunteers set a record with more than 23,000 fledglings sighted across the state.

Today, eastern bluebirds can be seen along trails, in parks, on golf courses, on school and corporate campuses and even in cemeteries, thanks to the recovery group’s efforts.

Among them are birds hatched at two state parks in Washington County, Afton and William O’Brien, and the nonprofit Belwin Conservancy in Afton.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) credits the recovery program and the agency’s Nongame Wildlife Program with fostering one of the most successful bluebird recovery projects in the nation.

For the most part, program participants aren’t scientists, just grass-roots volunteers smitten with the plump birds with blue backs and rust-colored bellies, said Carrol Johnson, the statewide coordinator for the recovery program.

Johnson, a retired 3M maintenance supervisor living in Northfield, started fawning over the bluebird about a dozen years ago after reading a newspaper article and attending a lecture.

“I never even knew there was a need,” said Johnson, who now maintains and monitors about 60 bluebird houses in Northfield and on his farm in Fillmore County. He also fields dozens of calls a week from bluebird volunteers across the nation.

People fall hard for the little songbird, he said.

“It happens to a lot of our people. People come to our presentation inquisitive. Some people get really hooked,” Johnson said. “They really enjoy the process of seeing the birds building the nest, laying the eggs and hatching.”

Monitoring houses is critical. Unmonitored houses can actually hurt bluebirds by attracting nonnative sparrows and increasing their population, Johnson said.

On the watch in Afton

Volunteers mount, monitor and maintain thousands of bluebird houses across the state. Two examples are Chuck and Hope Lea, longtime volunteers at Belwin, who have been checking bluebird houses along the Bell Oak Savanna trail for 20 years.

Chuck Lea, a retired 3M chemical engineer, keeps careful track of the number of eggs and how many birds were fledged. The figures fluctuate from year to year, mostly owing to predators such as house wrens, which punch holes in the eggs. Lea counted the most eggs, 85, in 1998; his highest fledgling count was in 2009, with 57.

“People are really drawn to the beauty of that bird and they have a lovely, warbling little call,” said Lynette Anderson, naturalist and restoration assistant at Belwin. “They bring with them a general good feeling. They speak to people’s hearts.”

According to Afton State Park naturalist Linda Radimecky, Afton environmentalist Oliver Charley created the region’s first bluebird trail on land now belonging to the state park because he loved the “little gems of blue.”

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  • Flint Hills Resources facilities manager Don Kern has been monitoring the bluebird boxes on restored native habitat along the Mississippi River. They anticipate 50 hatchlings this year.

  • A bluebird sighting was becoming a rarity 35 years ago when 11 people created the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota.

  • Last year the group recorded more than 20,000 hatchlings. Today, bluebirds can be seen along many trails and in many parks.

  • For the most part, these aren’t scientists, just a grass roots network of volunteers smitten with this little harbinger of happiness.

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